Future Trippin’: Five Artists Who Pushed Hip Hop’s Boundaries in 2019

Fact: Hip hop is nothing if it’s not always reinventing itself. Sure, there are plenty of important building blocks, idiosyncrasies, characteristics and charms that lend their particular weight to creating the art form we all know and love, but I always admired the culture’s ability to not only push musical boundaries, but to take aural and sonic wrecking balls to those boundaries without even blinking an eye. But that’s not to say that the artists making the tunes don’t get a little complacent from time to time, or that they don’t get a little too cozy in creating songs that sound quite similar to a lot of other artists. It happens. Things can and do get stale in this particular ecosphere, let’s not kid ourselves.

But not everybody or every new track is going to be a watershed moment for the world to hear. Not to mention the fact that many people are going to be perfectly happy with things getting a little stagnant, to put it nicely. J.G. Ballard, in his famous novel ​The Atrocity Exhibition​ (​no, it’s not just a sick ass LP from Danny Brown, folks​), described some of these basic purveyors of stilted art as “​desperate for the new, but disappointed in anything but the familiar.​” Damn, J.G. just roasted a particularly large swath of heads out there, with glorious, undeniable impunity. We all know the type, I’m sure.

Me, I love being surprised; I love the visceral; I am a feverish fan of the unforeseen slaps. Plus, forgive me if I’m wrong here, but are we or are we not about to jump into the sci-fi future drenched year of 2020?!?! So give me some music that sounds like it was made in 2019 and beyond, please. The future is now, and it’s being soundtracked by some brilliant musical heroes, and there’s no time like the present than to highlight some artists and tracks that, in this lone writer’s astute discernment, took time in 2019 to show us what the future of hip hop could have in store.

JPEGMAFIA-​ “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot​”

Smashing conventions is pretty much Peggy’s wheelhouse, and that was on full display in his ‘19 effort All My Heroes Are Cornballs. The long player is stuffed with genre-bending exercises, and JPEGMAFIA (​aka Barrington Hendricks)​ nimbly jumps through all the production and songwriting hurdles practically by himself, which is itself nothing short of a feat of super human ability.
The album opener, “​Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot​” is a perfect table setter, getting the listener primed and caught up to speed on the type of journey they’re embarking on; there are avant garde samples galore, and a bevy of glassy, melody-adjacent riffing and noodling which will then be suddenly juxtaposed with Hendricks trademark caterwauling MC stylings and esoteric lyrics. His true talent lies in not letting you get too comfortable, such as in this track, when you get settled in to that piano soul snippet, he’ll rip you into some trunk rattling kicks and power tool-aping guitar samples that would make Al Jourgensen envious.

Clippng-​ “​Blood of the Fang​”
I love clipping. I love Daveed diggs and think there is a strong argument to be made that he’s GOAT, in terms of the current pantheon of god-tier MCs. I think if their latest album, ​There Existed An Addiction To Blood,​ were the only album to have been released in 2019, the last 12 months still would have been considered one of the best years of hip-hop’s history. So yeah, I like these guys a lot. That being said, if I’m having to whittle their magnum opus down to one song, then I’m going to go with the muscular, provocative and future flexin’ “​Blood of the Fang​”.
Nestled into the final 3rd of the album’s track listing, “Blood of the Fang” represents the gateway into this vicious full length’s dark denouement. You see, There Existed An Addiction To Blood (​hereafter referred to as TEATB​) is basically a horror movie set to music, taking place on all the usual locales and sets we’d be used to hearing about in hip hop songs, but the tenor and feelings of your usual trap anthems are flipped on their heads. Here, in TEATB, you see that with an actual boots on the ground POV, there is a sinister, unforgiving mechanism at work on the streets these days. This is said to be plain as day with the first actual track of the LP, the masterclass in storytelling “​Nothing Is Safe”​ . It’s from that point on that the listener is knee deep in situations and wicked tableaus that will leave marks on both the ass and the psyche.

You really just have to let yourself become immersed in what Diggs and company are trying to do, which is to scare the shit out of you, honestly. But they intend to do so with honesty in the lyrics and that hellacious, horror-tinged sound toolkit doing the heavy lifting as far as the production goes. It’s such a compelling concoction, in this day and age, and once you hit “​ ​”, you’ve most likely already bought in to what Clippng is doing, full stop. So when Diggs is rattling off machine gun-fast diatribes and the pulsating kick is doing its dance with the industrial factory-like clang of the snare, you realize this is what the artform has come to not only in 2019, but also 2029, as well. This is what the future sounds like. Buckle up.

PLAYTHATBOIZAY(ft Denzel Curry and Anonymouz)-​”​Poison Klan​”
The amount of buzz coming from south Florida over the past 18 months is really, really remarkable, and when trying to determine the locus for all of that gas coming to that particular scene, it’s hard to mention anybody other than Denzel Curry. The kid has been on a remarkable run, starting with 2016’s Imperial, last year’s amazing Taboo, and then his polished and near-perfect 2019 effort ZUU. The good thing about Curry’s rise to the forefront of hip hop’s best, brightest and burgeoning MC class is that it inevitably shines a light on other formidable talents coming from that greater Miami talent pool.

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and Curry’s tide has been a blessing, to say the least. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I’d have ever checked out Anonymouz, for instance, and therefore I would’ve missed out on one of my favorite releases of the year, his ​There Is No Threat​ EP (​though odd to call it an EP since it’s longer and more dense than most other rappers’ agreed-upon full length releases​). Curry’s success also means he gets to shine a light on some of his other rising contemporaries, which brings us to ​PLAYTHATBOIZAY​. Zay has been a guest on a few Curry tracks, and they obviously have a great professional rapport, because Curry was tapped to produce ​PLAYTHATBOIZAY’s ​debut, the wonderfully sinister and eldritch Nocturnal.

The whole project is worth listening to, if only to dip your toes into some of the craziest and harshest production that side of the Mississippi, splattered with some fresh, unique pen game from ZAY and friends that lends an even more unruly and unabashedly fun listening experience than just the sterling Curry production could ever portend. The shining, jagged and fucked up jewel of this Florida crown is “​Poison Klan”​ , a nightmarish and unsettling foray into buzzsaw bass lines and distressed, distorted and deconstructed synth leads. The sounds are heavyweight status by themselves, but when you’ve got doom riders like ZAY, Denzel Curry and Anonymouz complimenting them, all of a sudden you have something wholly unique and bleeding edge cool. I feel like if Blade Runners were into listening to tunes as they hunted down their runaway robotic prey, “Poison Klan” is the type of stuff that they’d be listening to the most.

Malibu Ken​- “Acid King​”

Sometimes art, in an attempt to look into the future, finds itself firmly aping and augmenting sounds of yesteryear. It’s almost like a reverse nostalgia, but it works, and there’s probably no better example of that then the uber-cool future grime of Malibu Ken. Malibu Ken is, of course, not a singular person but it is a “they”, as in backpack stalwart Aesop Rock on the vox, alongside secret weapon Tobacco doing the production. The latter, and his shunning of digital sounds in favor of his admirable “ all analog/all the time” production ethos may be the MVP of this stupendously stellar team-up, but that’s not to say that the aid given by Aesop Rock is to be fully overlooked, either.

There is a charming, retro boom-bap vibe from the get-go on Malibu Ken, and it’s in those synths, and while at first the aesthetic comes off as one from hip hop’s infancy, mixed with Revenge of the Nerds soundtrack cues, you can slowly start to see that it’s actually quite a forward thinking approach to these songs, like a robot was tasked with making what it thought early 80s synth hip hop would sound like, and you get these sonic collages as the end product; one foot in 2020 already and one foot in 1984.

For my money, the standout track here is “Acid King”, which is a stripped down, lean-and-mean whirlwind story of a small town drug dealer named Castle, the satanic rituals he and his friends loved to partake in, and one fateful night when Castle is robbed of some product which sets in to motion a gruesome, ripped-from-the-satanic-panic headlines murder. It really is an outstanding track that needed both the lyrical acumen and showmanship of someone like Aesop Rock, and the lean, ominous and apocalyptic soundscapes that can only come from the mind of Tobacco, in order to pull this hip hop parlor trick off without a hitch. By the time the story reaches its climax, and that rising kick and snare is suddenly at the forefront, making it sound like the rousing theme song from some forgotten gem of an 80s television show, you have most likely succumbed to all the pleasures and conjuration of hip hop’s future that Malibu Ken serves up, and lucky you, because this type of lo-fi goodness is all too rare, unfortunately. The future and the past belongs to Malibu Ken.

Choker​– “Dualshock​”
I don’t really hold myself to too many writing maxims, but if I did, I think one of them would be ​“If you have the opportunity to write about Choker, write about Choker​.” Luckily, after this talented and rising-in-popularity-sure-but-still-grossly-underrated new wave R&B juggernaut released a string of engrossing and forward-thinking EPs in 2019, it definitely counts as an opportunity to write about Choker.

For the uninitiated, Choker is a 23-year old out of Michigan who has been steadily gaining a following after some lusciously produced, emotionally bolstered efforts over the last two years that showcase a wealth of musical knowledge and touchstones that he draws from with aplomb; he will draw from such wells as traditional soul, to psychedelic pop to synth wave, with hooks to spare and song-writing instincts that most people twice his age find as a thing of envy. My favorite way to describe Choker is “​The Weeknd, if The Weeknd didn’t write songs for and about narcissists.​” Choker is far, far too sincere in his work to be fully compared to Weeknd, of course, but the playful, sexy chops are there, and he’s barely even begun to show us what he can do.
Of the few EPs he put out he 2019, there are tons of examples of Choker taking R&B staples and even elements of things other artists have dipped their toes into this decade, but he has shown that he just can’t resist taking things to their next level or logical conclusions. My fave track has to be “​Dualshock”​ , the opening salvo on the Dog Candy EP. This is a song about crushing on someone in the age of the smartphone, but written from the pure romantic heart that feels nothing at all in common with the detached cynicism that can trap and limit modern day love. Choker just wants to love and wear his heart on his sleeve, all to the bouncey schoolyard claps and shimmering, 16-bit keys. The harmonies that breakout on in this song, and the sampled choruses that ring out at almost off-kilter timing is just the futuristic icing on the post-millennial soul cake.

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